Richard Picciuto wrote this blog in February–just a week before he passed away. It deserves another posting, since he enjoyed the prospect of space exploration and the ever-present hope/fear of contact with another form of life. It remains an ever-fascinating subject for even the most revered scholars of every age, past and present. In our time, the formation of SETI, the scientific research and writings of Fermi and Hawking have produced a vast amount of knowledge, but alas, no contact! One can’t help but wonder…what is out there? Richard has gathered a lot of information on this subject for your reading pleasure…
It is obviously difficult to comment on the sociology of a possible extraterrestrial civilization. Nobel Prize winning physicist Enrico Fermi put forth a proposition in 1950 which is now referred to as the ‘Fermi Paradox.’ This contradiction or proposition is: that with the billions and billions of star systems in the universe, one would think that intelligent life would have contacted our civilization by now. If technological civilizations were common and moderately long-lived, then the galaxies ought to be fully inhabited. The vast distances of interstellar space should not be a significant barrier to any such civilization – assuming exponential population growth and plausible technology. Alien contact should thus be completely inevitable; we ought to find unavoidable evidence of ‘little green men’ all about us. Our Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) should have been quickly successful – it hasn’t been – that’s the paradox. This paradoxical failure is sometimes called ‘The Great Silence.’ The Great Silence suggests that space traveling technological civilizations are extremely rare (or very discrete.) In general, solutions to Fermi’s paradox come down to: They are here unobserved or they were here and left material evidence (UFO’s, unexplained artifacts.) They are us…humans are the descendents of previous alien civilizations. They exist but they didn’t have enough time to reach us (do to the speed of speed of space travel.) They are sending signals, but we do not know how to listen. They have no desire to communicate. Technology and science is not inevitable. They do not exist because we are the first and only life in the universe. Another scenario is not that civilizations are transitory, rather it is their interest in exploring space that is transitory.
The noted and brilliant physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, of Cambridge University says that in a universe with 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars, it is unlikely that earth is the only place where life has evolved. “To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational,” Hawking said. “I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.”
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is the collective name for a number of activities people undertake to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. Some of the most well known projects are run by Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley and the SETI Institute. The United States government contributed to early SETI projects. In fact, like Pioneer 10 (1972,) the Pioneer 11 spacecraft (1973) each carried a gold plaque with messages designed to make contact with possible alien civilizations. The late Dr. Carl Sagan helped devise the plaques that bear the illustration of a man and a woman as well as a diagram identifying Earth’s location in the galaxy. With this example before them, NASA placed a more ambitious message aboard Voyager 1 and 2 (both 1977) – a kind of time capsule, intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials. The Voyager message is carried by a phonograph record, the contents of which were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Sagan. He and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim. Instructions, in symbolic language, explain the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record is to be played.
The SETI Institute has been collaborating with the Radio Astronomy Laboratory at UC Berkeley to develop a specialized radio telescope array for SETI studies, something like a mini-cyclops array. The array concept is named the ‘Allen Telescope Array’ (ATA) after the project’s benefactor Paul Allen. Its sensitivity will be equivalent to a single large dish more than 100 meters in diameter. The full array is planned to consist of 350 or more Gregorian radio dishes, each 6.1 meters (20 ft) in diameter. These dishes are the largest producible with commercially available satellite television dish technology. In April 2011, the ATA was forced to enter hibernation due to funding shortfalls. Regular operation of the ATA was resumed on December 5, 2011.
Here are 2 videos, both important to this post. The first (1:26) by Bill Nye, popularly known as ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy,’ who has a B.S from Cornell University, and an honorary doctorate from The Johns Hopkins University. The second (9:10) is by Dr. Michio Kaku, a brilliant theoretical physicist, and co-founder of string field theory – a branch of string theory. He holds a B.S. from Harvard University and a Ph.D from Univeristy California, Berkeley.